Utah Child Custody Laws

Utah Child Custody

You should know the following important information if you’re engaged in a child custody action in Utah.

What are the Types of Child Custody in Utah?

There are four primary types of child custody in Utah.  Each provides a certain degree of flexibility at a court’s discretion so that they meet the child’s best interests.

Sole Legal and Physical Custody is granted to a custodial parent who will have full control over decision-making regarding the children. The other parent may be awarded visitation time, but the children will reside with the custodial parent in most cases.

In sole legal and physical custody arrangements, one parent will have the children living with them full-time or at least 255 overnights a year.  Visitation is usually set to at least a minimum of 86 overnights per year and typically includes a mix of weekends, holidays, and school breaks.

This type of custody is uncommon and primarily reserved for cases where the court perceives one of the parents as unfit or unable to care for the children.

Joint Legal and Physical Custodyallows both parents to be responsible for decision-making concerning the children. In most joint custody cases, the children “live” with both parents for varying durations throughout the year.  This type of custody is most common in child custody cases where both parents live in the same general area and are more common in cases of amicable divorce where both parents want the children to reside with them.

Sharing physical custody means each parent will have the children for at least 111 days each year.  Joint legal custody means both parents share in making decisions about the children such as medical treatment, educational goals, and additional activities the children will participate in.

Joint Legal and Sole Physical Custody provides both parents with decision-making power but the children are ordered to live with one parent full-time and have visitation with the other parent. This is a common form of child custody in Utah, especially if one or both parents are working or the children are in school and need a stable schedule.

Split Custody is rare and ordered for parents who each want individual custody of different children. Split custody may be ordered when the court believes it is in the children’s best interests to separate them between households, which is generally not a court’s preference.

These arrangements may occur when siblings do not get along, a child has a lot of anger against one parent, or a child has mental health issues that make separation a better option.

Under Utah custody laws, a custody order must set forth a visitation schedule covering weekly, monthly, holiday, and summer visits. Both parents are entitled to regular time with their child and neither parent can prevent visits.

In cases where a parent has struggled with substance abuse or physical violence, a judge may award that parent supervised visitation.  Supervised visits take place at a designated location or agency until a judge can be sure a child is safe in that parent’s care.

Utah laws changed in May 2022 to create a statutory minimum schedule of parent time for a child five to 18 years old.  You can view the updated statute here.

Read More:  The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children (and How to Help Them Cope)

Determining Child Custody in Utah

Child custody is sometimes resolved through mediation that involves both parents and their advocates sitting down with a third party to figure out what’s best for their child. It’s usually cheaper and faster, with less acrimony than going through the court system.

When parents can’t develop their own parenting schedule, the court can establish an appropriate schedule that creates parameters guided by Utah statutes and other factors, including:

  • How does parenting time impact the child’s physical health and emotional development?
  • Distance between the child’s home and the non-custodial parent’s home
  • Allegations of child abuse
  • Lack of demonstrated parenting skills when there’s no safeguards to ensure the child’s safety
  • Financial inability of the non-custodial parent to provide food and shelter during parent-time
  • Child’s preference, if they are sufficiently mature
  • Is either parent incarcerated, or have they been in the past?
  • Shared interests of the child and non-custodial parent
  • Non-custodial parent’s involvement in the child’s school, community, religious, or other related activities
  • Non-custodial parent’s availability to care for the child when the custodial parent is working or has other obligations
  • A chronic pattern of missing, canceling, or denying regularly scheduled parenting time
  • Parent-time schedule of siblings
  • Lack of reasonable alternatives for a nursing child
  • Any other criteria the court feels deems relevant

Sometimes, a parent may voluntarily relinquish their custody rights for various reasons.  To do this, the parent must file a “Voluntary Relinquishment” petition with the court.

When can my child decide which parent they want to live with?

A child can voice their preference for one parent or another. The court will consider this information but ultimately decide which parent is the custodial parent.  Judges will watch closely to see if parents have coached their children on their preferences or if the child’s reasons for a particular preference. That may be due to one parent being lax with discipline or giving the child lavish gifts.

Read More:  Utah Child Support Laws and FAQs

What is Utah’s Best Interests of the Child Standard?

The overriding factor when deciding child custody in Utah is the “best interests of the child” standard.  All input and decisions are centered on what is best for the child, and not what’s best for the parents.

A judge will use the following information to make the best possible decision.

  • Past conduct and demonstrated moral standards of the parties
  • The parent most likely to act in the best interest of the child, including allowing the child frequent contact with the non-custodial parent
  • Bonding between each parent and the child
  • If a parent has intentionally exposed the child to pornography or other harmful sexual-related materials
  • Physical, psychological, and emotional needs of the child
  • Both parent’s ability to reach shared decisions for the child and prioritize the child’s welfare
  • If both parents participated in raising the child before the divorce
  • The geographic proximity of the parents’ homes
  • The child’s preferences
  • Parents’ ability to protect their child from family conflict
  • Past and present ability to cooperate with each other in parenting and making decisions
  • Any history of child abuse, domestic violence, or kidnapping
  • Any other relevant factors

What to Know About Parenting Plans

Parenting plans are detailed instructions about each child’s physical and legal custody when parents legally separate or get divorced.  The plan can be drafted by the parents, or if they can’t reach an agreement, the court will create a parenting plan instead.

The best plans have the most details.  This helps avoid conflicts and misunderstandings going forward.  People often retain an experienced mediator or family law attorney to help draft this legal document.

Regardless of how the plan is put together, the court will need to approve it to ensure that it follows Utah laws and is in the child’s best interests.

Typically, plans include:

  • Physical custody, including the number of overnight visits for each parent.
  • Legal custody rights and responsibilities for each parent.
  • Child support payment amounts and recourse if a parent falls behind.
  • Exchanging children, including when, where, and time of day
  • Transporting children for visitation, school, and other similar situations.
  • Access to records and information
  • Adjustments when a child reaches certain ages
  • Holiday schedules and school break schedules
  • Vacation and travel approval and advance notifications
  • How will the child communicate with both parents
  • How is communication between parents handled?
  • Contact with other family members and friends
  • How are various expenses handled for medical costs, school activities, tuition, hobbies, and recreational activities?
  • Children’s use of technology and online activities
  • Handling special needs for the children as they arise
  • How to address child discipline and mental health issues
  • Guidelines for when a new partner for either parent is involved
  • Grooming and dress guidelines (extreme haircuts, make-up, etc.)
  • Drinking or drug use in the presence of the children

Read More:  How to Approach Divorce Mediation (what NOT to do)

How Do I Modify a Utah Custody or Visitation Order?

If a situation changes for either parent, custody and visitation orders may need to be modified so they are still in the child’s best interests.

Either parent can start a modification process by filing a “Petition to Modify” motion. Sometimes, parents even agree that a change is beneficial to the children. By filing a petition, the court can exercise the proper jurisdiction, approve the change or offer an alternative arrangement.

The primary impetus of any modification decision made by a judge involves the reasons for the change. Examples of valid reasons for modifying an agreement include:

  • Abuse or domestic violence charges
  • Relocation for work
  • Relocation for better schools
  • Relocation for a sick family member
  • Drug or alcohol addiction Problems
  • A felony conviction
  • Remarriage with an unfit partner
  • The onset of a mental or physical disability

After determining a valid reason for the modification, a judge will also look at the history of the family, including the circumstances of the divorce, the relationship of the child with each parent, and how cooperative the parents have been to that point.

Utah Child Custody FAQs

Can grandparents be granted visitation in Utah?

Yes.  Grandparents can get visitation rights to see their grandchildren. Depending on the circumstances, a grandparent or any other adult relative by marriage or blood who raised a child could get custody or visitation.

Utah gives custody preference to parents first. It’s possible for non-parents to gain custody of a child. There are very specific criteria governing the process of someone other than the parent becoming a guardian or a custodial parent. For full custody, the parents must be absent or abusive.

Do I automatically get child support if I have primary custody?

No.  Child support is calculated on financial factors, which may or may not be an issue if you have custody.

Do unwed fathers have custody rights in Utah?

Yes, but they must establish paternity first.

If a parent stops paying child support or alimony, do they still have visitation rights?

Yes.  A parent cannot lose court-ordered visitation rights due to unpaid child support or alimony.  If you withhold visitation, you could be found in contempt of court and face penalties.

Can I move out of Utah with our child?

A custodial parent cannot move out of state with a child if they do not involve the non-custodial parent in the decision. The other parent must be given a chance to contest the move if that is their preference.

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